Philippines: No aggression from China yet after setting up buoys

THE PHILIPPINE Coast Guard on Monday said it had not seen any aggressive action from its Chinese counterpart in the South China Sea after setting up five navigational buoys in the disputed water to assert its sovereignty.

“Our personnel on the ground have not been challenged by Chinese vessels yet, other than a few reports of voice communication challenges from them, based on our aerial surveillance,” Coast Guard Vice Admiral Joseph M. Coyme told a televised news briefing in mixed English and Filipino.

“We cannot avoid these voice challenges and we responded by saying that we were conducting a routine surveillance activity.”

He said the coast guard regularly conducts surveillance to verify the locations of five other buoys that the Philippines installed last year. These have remained untouched.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately reply to a Facebook Messenger chat seeking comment.

“The buoys would show our strong presence and control over areas within our exclusive economic zone,” Mr. Coyme said. Filipino fishermen would also be protected, he added.

The coast guard set up five buoys carrying the national flag on May 10 to 12 in five areas within its 200-mile (322 km) exclusive economic zone, including at Whitsun Reef, where hundreds of Chinese maritime vessels moored in 2021, spokesman Jay T. Tarriela tweeted.

He said the move would protect Philippine maritime borders and raise the safety of maritime trade.

Mr. Coyme said it took them about a week to set up the buoys near Flat Island, Irving Reef, Loaita Island Lankiam Cay and Whitsun Reef.

In May 2022, the Philippine Coast Guard installed five navigational buoys on four islands in the Spratlys.

He said the coast guard records aggressive maneuvers by Chinese vessels against Philippine ships in the South China Sea.

Over the years, China has deployed hundreds of coast guard and fishing vessels in disputed areas.

The South China Sea is subject to overlapping territorial claims involving China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. It is a key global shipping route that is believed to be rich in fish and gas.

A United Nations-backed international tribunal in 2016 voided China’s claim to more than 80% of the sea based on a 1940s map.

Last week, President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. pushed a code of conduct for the South China Sea at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Indonesia amid worsening tensions from China’s increased assertiveness at sea.

In January, the Philippine leader met with his Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. He said the Chinese leader had promised to find a solution to avoid tensions at sea. The two leaders signed bilateral deals covering agriculture, energy, maritime security and tourism.

The Philippine Coast Guard in February released a video showing the Chinese Coast Guard’s use of a military-grade laser to harass a Philippine ship supporting a resupply mission at the Second Thomas Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

The coast guard has called China’s use of laser a “clear violation of Philippine sovereign rights.” China has rejected the claim, saying the use of laser was meant to “ensure navigation safety.”

The incident drew a sharp response from various countries including the United States, Australia, Japan, Canada, Germany, Denmark and United Kingdom.

The Philippines is eyeing security partnerships with other countries, including a three-way security pact with Japan and the US. It is also in talks to include Australia and Japan in planned joint South China Sea patrols with the US.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in April said the Philippines and China would hold preparatory talks in May ahead of expected discussions on joint oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea.

“We need to bolster the enforcement activities of the Philippine Coast Guard pertaining to maritime safety in the West Philippine Sea,” Mr. Coyme said, referring to areas of the South China Sea within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

The Philippines in February gave the United States greater access to its military bases under their 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

China has criticized the EDCA expansion, accusing the US of endangering regional peace and stability.

Three of the four new EDCA locations will be in northern Philippines — Naval Base Camilo Osias in Sta Ana, Cagayan; Lal-lo Airport, also in Cagayan; and Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela.

Cagayan is about 1,000 kilometers away from self-ruled Taiwan, which is being claimed by China. Balabac Island in Palawan, which is facing the South China Sea, is also on the list.

Philippine Defense spokesman Arsenio R. Andolong earlier said the Philippines aimed to finish the construction of the five existing EDCA sites by 2024. Washington has allotted more than $83 million (P4.7 billion) for the approved projects at these sites.

EDCA, a supplementary deal to the 1999 visiting forces agreement, allows the US to rotate its troops in the Philippines and build and operate facilities on agreed locations for both their military forces.

Filipino troops and their American counterparts hold annual military drills in Philippine territories that are called “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises. — John Victor D. Ordoñez